SI Staff
Friday October 7th, 2016

If it feels like the NFL hasn’t been quite the same without Tom Brady on the field, that’s because the highs and lows of Brady’s career have so often intersected with the league’s central storyline: the road to the Super Bowl. Brady’s five championships since 2001 brought the on-field drama of the past decade and a half down to the Patriots’ dominance and the efforts of countless franchises to close the gap. But he was just as present off the field, making a pop culture imprint just as profound (if not as prolific) as his longtime rival Peyton Manning. Below, a look back at the 12 moments that have defined Tom Brady’s career since he entered the league as an overlooked late-round draft pick in 2000.

Sept. 23, 2001: How long would Brady have toiled behind Drew Bledsoe as the Patriots’ backup quarterback if Jets linebacker Mo Lewis hadn’t cracked Bledsoe with a violent shoulder-to-shoulder hit along the sideline late in the teams’ Week 2 meeting? Brady had thrown just three passes in the pros up until that point, and after Bledsoe tried and failed to return to action, the lightly regarded, inexperienced second-year QB out of Michigan was left to play out the final minutes of a 10–3 Patriots loss.

As the severity of Bledsoe’s injury became clear, Brady shepherded the Patriots to an 11–3 record over the rest of the regular season. Bledsoe never got his job back, aside from a heroic relief performance in the AFC Championship Game later that year. He split five more seasons between the Bills and Cowboys as Brady entrenched himself as a New England icon.

Feb. 3, 2002: Heading into an emotional Super Bowl in the wake of 9/11, the Brady-led Patriots were 14-point underdogs to the St. Louis Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf. Kurt Warner was the regular season MVP, and Marshall Faulk was the Offensive Player of the Year. The odds were stacked.

The Rams got on the board first, kicking a first-quarter field goal, but the Patriots capitalized on three turnovers by the Rams and took a 17–3 lead in the third quarter. Momentum turned for good on the ensuing drive when Kurt Warner was sacked at the Patriots two-yard line and safety Tebucky Jones’s returned it 97 yards for the score, except … linebacker Willie McGinest was called for holding. The Rams eventually scored on that drive, and then they scored again. Game tied.

With 1:21 and no timeouts left, at their own 21-yard line, conventional wisdom (and broadcaster John Madden) suggested the Patriots take a knee and try to win it in overtime. Instead Tom Brady secured his place in Super Bowl lore, masterfully driving the Patriots downfield to set up Adam Vinatieri for the 48-yard Super Bowl winning field goal. Brady was named MVP, finishing 16–27 for 145 passing yards and a touchdown. A dynasty—and legend—were officially born.   


Jan. 19, 2002: Raiders vs. Patriots in an AFC divisional showdown. Brady’s first playoff game. A home field white with snow. Down 13–10 with 1:50 left on clock and the Patriots at the Raiders’ 42-yard line, Brady steps back to pass, pump-fakes, and then tucks the ball instead. Concurrently, Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson blitzed and knocked the ball out to be recovered by linebacker Greg Biekert. Season over for New England.

The announcers, fans and players assumed it was a fumble. But after further review (because it was under two minutes) referee Walt Coleman announced that the call was being reversed because “The quarterback’s arm was coming forward.” Coleman meant to reference Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2 of the NFL rule book which allows “any intentional forward movement of [the thrower's] arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body.”

An Adam Vinietieri 43-yard field goal tied it in regulation, and he kicked another in overtime. This was the last game at the old Foxboro stadium. Robert Kraft called it the best. 

Sept. 30, 2001: In Tom Brady's first NFL start, the Patriots faced the Colts and their fellow young quarterback Peyton Manning. The Patriots won in a 44–13 blowout though the quarterbacks did not play particularly well that day—Brady’s passer rating was 79.2 while Manning’s was just 48.2. Neither player knew at the time that they had just started what would become the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history.

Brady and Manning, though never in the same division, would go on to play in 17 games, four of which were AFC Championship Games. Brady won the overall series 11–6, but Manning's teams (Colts and Broncos) beat Brady’s Patriots three of four times in the postseason. They split the last 10 games.

While certainly a fiercely competitive rivalry, Manning and Brady had a shared respect. When Manning announced his retirement at the end of last year, Brady was one of the first calls he made, and he named “that handshake with Tom Brady” one of the aspects of the NFL he’ll miss most. These two will see each other again in Canton. 

Feb. 1, 2004 and Feb. 6, 2005: Brady solidified his status as a future NFL Hall-of-Famer after leading the Patriots to back-to-back Super Bowl victories, both in thrilling fashion, Just like their first appearance in the big game, the Patriots opened up a lead in Super Bowl XXXVIII, this time over the Panthers. In the fourth quarter, up 21–10, Carolina crept back and took a 22–21 lead. With 1:08 remaining, Brady again drove the Patriots down the field to get up a game-winning Adam Vinatieri field goal. Brady was awarded his second MVP award after throwing for 354 yards and three touchdowns.

Brady and the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years after again getting out to an early lead on the Eagles, and again, letting an opponent keep it close. Philadelphia cut the lead to three with 1:48 remaining—and regained possession after the Pats went three-and-out after an onside kick—but failed to convert. Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch stole the show with 11 catches and 133 yards, but Brady’s legend only continued to grow.

But the outside world began to question Brady’s growing success. According to an ESPN story published years later in light of the Patriots’ Spygate scandal, the Eagles accused the Patriots of cheating after being confounded as to how their opponent was seemingly so well-prepared for its dime defense.








Apr. 16, 2005: Surely you thought it at the time: ‘He’s not a performer, he’s a professional athlete.’ Well, that all changed with Brady took to the Saturday Night Live stage and sang a monologue about his array of "talents" that include imitating Kermit the Frog, speaking fluent Japanese and killing a horse with his bare hands. While never receiving the fanfare of Peyton Manning's SNL gigs, Brady turned in a respectable performance in sketches ranging from a sexual harassment PSA to having the most inaccurate arm in the world.

Hosting SNL was Brady’s first major foray into the entertainment world—and his acting portfolio only blossomed from there. His voice appeared in a 2006 episode of Family Guy, which was followed by cameos on Entourage. But his most serendipitous role was that of a perfect sperm donor in Mark Wahlberg’s Ted 2.

Brady's picture-perfect looks and comfortable on camera demeanor also led to a slew of high-profile endorsement deals, most notably for the Australian shearling footwear company, Uggs for Men. 

Sept. 7, 2008: "Kansas City came up with the ball but that's not the story. Tom Brady took a tremendous hit as he released that ball, right on his left leg. Brady down at midfield."

Fans didn't need to hear any more from the CBS broadcast. In the first game of the 2008 season, the reigning MVP was hit hard by Chiefs S Bernard Pollard—Brady walked off the field, but later tests revealed a torn ACL and MCL, effectively ending his season. The injury sent ripples throughout the league, since the Patriots were the heavy favorites to make it back to the Super Bowl in the wake of their perfect regular season.

Relying on the leadership of backup QB Matt Cassel, the Patriots held their own, clawing their way to an 11–5 regular season record, but they missed out on the playoffs due to tiebreaker rules. But herein lies the Brady effect: since that season, New England hasn't missed the playoffs.

Feb. 3, 2008: It had been a magical night for the Giants, who stood on the brink of an improbable upset of unbeaten New England in Super Bowl XLII. New York had dominated up front throughout the game, sacking Brady five times. The Patriots’ record-setting offense didn’t find the end zone through the air until just 2:54 remained in the fourth quarter. David Tyree made one of the greatest catches in NFL history to set up the go-ahead touchdown in the final seconds. The Giants had everything go their way ... and Tom Brady still almost beat them.

With 19 seconds left, facing a third-and-20 from his own 16, Brady rolled out to his right, loaded up and hoisted a bomb for Randy Moss almost 70 yards downfield. The pass stayed in the air for what seemed like ages, and given the magnitude of the moment and the degree of difficulty involved, it was placed perfectly—if not for a last-second intervention from Giants cornerback Corey Webster, the Patriots would have had a chance to tie or win the game from inside the red zone, and that’s if Moss hadn’t outraced the Giants to the goal line. It fell incomplete, but the pass lives on as a microcosm of Brady’s brilliance amid New England’s near-perfect season.

Sept. 24, 2014: The headlines were swirling. “For Tom Brady, the end game has become apparent” (Boston Globe), “Tom Brady stunk so bad his job security is up for discussion” (New York Post), “Was this the end for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots’ dynasty?” (Yahoo!). 

Brady’s horrid start to the 2014 season culminated in one of his worst performance as a pro against the Chiefs in Week 4. He threw two interceptions (including a pick six) and lost a fumble, and the Patriots were blown out 41–14. Brady—who notoriously played to the end of every game in the Patriots’ blowout-laden 2007 season—was so bad in this one he was benched in the fourth quarter. Making matters worse, Brady refused to absorb the blame: “It was just a bad performance by everybody,” he said after the loss. Skepticism emerged about the 2–2 Patriots, and in particular, their seemingly past-his-prime quarterback, who at that point was completing just 59% of his passes, the lowest in his career.

May 9, 2014: The Patriots have drafted their fair share of quarterbacks during the Brady Era—Matt Cassel, Ryan Mallett, Kliff Kingsbury!—but New England's selection of Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft was different. It felt like the Patriots had truly, unequivocally planted the seeds for a post-Brady world.

Brady, 37 years old at the time, had showed no real signs of slowing down—he had just led the Patriots to another AFC Championship berth. But at some point age will catch up to the medical marvel. Will it be after the 2017 season when Brady is 41 and the Eastern Illinois product becomes a free agent? Maybe, maybe not, but Garoppolo is the only backup seemingly set up to take the reins.

Jan. 2015–Oct. 2016: The Deflategate Era started with a Brady win: a 45–7 thrashing of the Colts in the AFC Championship game. 623 days later, it ended with a Jacoby Brissett loss: a 16–0 Week 4 shutout at the hands of the Bills. In between, Brady was suspended four games, then not suspended at all, then suspended four games again (oh yeah, and he won that fourth Super Bowl ring, too). You know what we’ve learned over the course of those 623 days? Nobody cares. When this story first broke, some speculated that it would tarnish his legacy as a quarterback, an idea that is now simply laughable. In the end, even though he technically “lost” to the NFL and had to serve his suspension, Brady still won. Because the public will remember this “scandal” as a colossal waste of time. After all of the PSI levels and the “My Balls Are Perfect” headlines and destroyed cell phones, there’s still not any concrete evidence that Brady actually did anything wrong. Over time, people will talk more about what he did in Super Bowl XLIX, just days after the scandal surfaced, (spoiler alert: he did good things!), and what he'll do when he returns to the field with a vengeance than anything he may or may not have done to some footballs back in January of 2015.   

Feb. 1, 2015: With the Deflategate saga in its swelling infancy, the Patriots remained focused on the task at hand: winning a Super Bowl for the first time in a decade. Going from dynasty to an era of domination.

What would unfold was one of the most gritty, dramatic Super Bowls in history. The Patriots and Seahawks traded touchdowns in the first half, entering the third quarter tied 14–14. Brady and the Patriots offense were stymied by the vaunted Seahawks defense in the third, while a Doug Baldwin touchdown and Steven Hauschka field goal catapulted the Seahawks to a 24–14 lead entering the game’s final quarter.

Momentum seemed light years away for New England, the taste of a lost season became more prevalent. Then Tom Brady grabbed his superhero cape. After a nearly perfect 68-yard touchdown drive cut the lead to three points, Brady orchestrated an actual perfect drive to give the Patriots a 28–24 lead with 2:02 left. Brady was 8–8 on the drive, hitting four different New England receivers. It was his 13th Super Bowl touchdown, eclipsing the record held by Brady’s childhood hero, Joe Montana. Then Malcolm Butler sealed the game by intercepting Russell Wilson in the end zone, and quarterback history would be changed forever. Brady, hoisting his fourth Super Bowl and third Super Bowl MVP trophies, went from one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time to the greatest ever in many eyes. 

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